In some situations, police officers may be uninformed or unaware of a key law designed to promote safety in bicycling. In other instances, police have blamed their lack of enforcement by saying the law is too vague.
But there is a new law being considered by the Florida House of Representatives (HB 231) and Senate (SB 908) which could have a very positive impact on certain safety issues and law enforcement problems facing people who ride bicycles in Florida. This proposed law seeks to give better guidance to all parties including motorists, police officers, and people who ride bikes.
One common bicycle accident is where a person riding a bicycle is hit from behind by a passing motorist. The mechanism of the crash is simple, but most frequently, police officers do not cite the motorist with the specific law meant to address this type of accident - motorists are not cited with violation of the 3 feet mandatory passing law. Our existing Florida law, passed in 2006, requires vehicles to give a 3 feet cushion when passing people riding bikes. The law is valuable and needed. I have represented many cyclists who have been hit by the passenger side view mirror of vehicles while passing. There is one common thread in all my cases where the cyclist was injured by a side view mirror – not a single motorist received a ticket for violation of the unsafe passing law. The tickets should have been given - but they were ignored. Did the police officer not know about the law? Was the officer confused? Was the officer concerned about proving the distance in passing, since the officer didn't observe it? The evidence each time showed damage to the bike and the vehicle and injuries to the person riding the bike. Isn't that enough evidence that 3 feet was not given?
Number of Tickets Given in the State of Florida
Florida is a state with more than 14 million licensed drivers. The issuance of some types of traffic tickets occurs in numbers so big, it is hard to fathom. In 2014, how many tickets were written for running red lights? 58,765! There were 194,414 tickets written for careless driving. There were 91,390 tickets written for failure to yield the right-of-way. All these numbers were just in 2014! Compare these examples to the number of tickets issued for improper passing of bicycles.
Between 2006-2010, Florida police only wrote 337 tickets for violation of the 3 feet law. In 2014, the numbers picked up to only 496 citations. Even worse than the small numbers is the complete lack of enforcement in particular areas of the state. There were ZERO tickets written in Jacksonville and Tallahassee, and only 3 in Tampa. There were 31 written in Miami, and 19 in Orlando. Many counties issued no violations at all. Section 316.083, Florida Statutes states, in part:
The driver of a vehicle overtaking a bicycle or other non-motorized vehicle must pass the bicycle or other non-motorized vehicle at a safe distance of not less than 3 feet between the vehicle and the bicycle or other non-motorized vehicle.
Is the 3 Feet Law Too Difficult to Prove in Court?
Some police officers complain that violation of the 3 feet law is too difficult to prove in Court. They say the 3 feet passing law is too vague – the law does not say from what part of the car the police officer is supposed to measure. They say the law is unclear if the police officer is to measure from the bicycle or from the person riding the bike. Police officers claim it is difficult to measure accurately the actual distance between the vehicle and the cyclist or bicycle.
This argument fails miserably, at least in one sense – in numerous instances, police fail to issue a ticket for violation of the 3 feet law when there has been a collision between the car and the bike. In that instance, the lack of 3 feet is (painfully) obvious. The fact that the car and the bike touched each other means the distance between them was obviously less than 3 feet!
Wording for the Proposed 3 Feet Law
The law being proposed to the Florida Legislature attempts to substantially clarify the law. The proposed law would amend the 3 feet law to state:
The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a person operating a bicycle…must pass the person operating the bicycle…at a safe distance of not less than 3 feet between any part of or attachment to the motor vehicle, anything extending from the motor vehicle, and any trailer or other thing being towed by the motor vehicle and the bicycle, (and) the person operating the bicycle.
What About the 2nd Most Frequent Type of Bicycle v. Car Accident?
A second common type of bicycle crash is called the “right hook”. Here, the vehicle partially passes the cyclist, or gets barely ahead of the cyclist. The motorist then attempts a sudden tight turn - directly into the path of the cyclist cruising straight ahead. The car is not far enough ahead of the bicycle rider to make the turn safely. But the motorist turns anyway and expects the cyclist to adjust. Why does this happen? Maybe some drivers are surprised by the speed of the bicycle. In the cases I have handled with “right hooks”, the drivers frequently say, “I had the right of way”. These drivers think that once they nose ahead of the bike, they can do what they want - and the cyclist should slam on brakes and let them turn.
The law currently being considered by the Florida Legislature would improve the law of “right hooks”. The bill would add an entirely new section to Florida law. The law would state:
316.0833 Right turn when passing vulnerable user.
(1) A person operating a vehicle who overtakes and passes a vulnerable user (cyclist) of a public right-of-way proceeding in the same direction may not make a right turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway unless the turn can be made at a safe distance from the vulnerable user (cyclist) with reasonable safety and will not impede the travel of the vulnerable user.
(2) A violation of subsection (1) is a noncriminal traffic infraction, punishable as a moving violation…If a violation of subsection (1) contributed to the bodily injury of a vulnerable user (cyclist) of a public right-of-way, the law enforcement officer issuing the citation for the violation shall note such information on the citation.
I urge you to write your local legislators to support the proposed new Florida law.
Christopher G. Burns is an attorney who has specialized in defending the rights of injured cyclists for 30 years. He is the Chairperson for the Jacksonville (Fla.) Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Consultations are free of charge. Contact Chris.